THOMPSON: Real Numbers
"A potential time bomb" threatens New York City’s graduation rate. The 30% of the city’s students who earned a Local Diploma in 2007 will not be able to graduate in 2012 without passing five Regents exams. So, Joel Klein’s Department of Education should have welcomed the audit of the city’s graduation rate.
The press has concentrated on Comptroller Bill Thompson's audit of 43,651 graduates, without noting that they represent only 40% of the students who were scheduled to graduate in 2007 under that year's lower standards. The study questioned whether 9.6% of the graduates met the graduation requirements in terms of earning credits and passing Regents exams (when required.) The audit also showed that 20% of the graduates did not meet the law’s attendance requirements, with graduates having attendance rates as low as 64%. They originally found "little or no evidence" to justify the classifications of 17.5% of students as "discharges" rather than as possible dropouts. The transcripts of more than 50% of their sample of students categorized as "still enrolled" had been changed (in addition to 25% of the graduates). And they documented other loopholes for understating the dropout rate (students under the age of 17 were not counted as dropouts and 1/7th of the sample of the "still enrolled" appeared to have left school).
Pad the numbers by 9.6% here, 20% there, 17.5% over there, and 14% around the corner, and pretty soon we’re talking about real numbers.
Klein’s DOE submitted after-the-fact documentation regarding most of the 9.6% questioned transcripts, which the auditors accepted, and this is where the real drama lies. New York City uses "annualization," which it claims is "implicitly"allowed by State law to give a full year’s credit to a student who fails the first semester of a course but passes the second semester with a grades as low as 65. Each school can use its own discretion in awarding those credits. Up to 1/5th of graduates were granted multiple credits for passing the same course more than once; for instance granting credit for a senior class to a student who passed the freshman class twice. As the graduation date approached, the number of changes in transcripts, including changes for previous years, were increasingly recorded. One graduate had seven last-minute changes, including the addition of five Spanish credits during the last semester. The auditors also questioned changes to a graduate's summer school records, asking how the student could earn five credits in a short summer school session.
Undoubtedly, many changes were acts of compassion. I can’t imagine an urban educator who hasn’t repeatedly bent or broken the rules. But the audit was not questioning the good, bad, and ugly policies of the NYC School System. It was questioning a) the accuracy of its records and b) the district’s refusal to address its accuracy at a time when principals are under pressure to show results even if it means the inappropriate manipulation data. Klein should welcome an audit on "Credit Recovery" in order to avoid a disaster by 2012 when the 28 to 30% of students earning local diplomas must pass the Regents Exams. And that does not include many many more, as shown by the audit, who must meet significantly higher standards. - John Thompson
Update. Gotham Schools has done great work on this issue and I can't wait until Jennifer Jennings tackles the latest on the "discharge rate." And now the Huffington Post is on the "Enron of public education" story. Given the interest of the National Journal on the subject and the controversies over the District of Columbia's actual performance, perhaps independent evaluators' reports will become a hot new genre. Everyone should share the joy of being immersed in the methodology and prose of professional auditors. And maybe Alexander can report on the sexiest practitioners of the green eye shades profession.
Correction. As explained in the comments, I have changed a typo in the second paragraph. Responding to David Cantor, I have made it explicit that the original numbers of 9.6% of questioned graduates and 17.5% of discharged were addressed subsequently. I do not read the audit as determining that all but three of the questioned cases were determined to be "proper." But that depends how you define the word proper, and you can read further in the comments.